First of all we should probably admit that sin is a pandemic. It is not an epidemic, effecting a lot, but not all. I mean if it is an epidemic, I can pretend I’m not sick, pat myself on the back for having a great immune system, and pity all those pathetic sick people. Or, maybe all of us healthy people should quarantine the sick ones so that they will have no chance of infecting us. Fear mongering seems popular these days. Don’t let the sick people into your churches! YOU WILL ALL DIE! But sin is pandemic. Can you catch what you already have? And our mission is not merely to be healthy. It is to introduce the sick, the sinners, to the only cure. And it is hard to tell people about Jesus if you will have nothing to do with them.
I love the story of Levi being told to follow Jesus in Luke 5:27-32. Levi was a tax collector which mean that he was considered to be a pariah; a traitor; a greedy greederson. Along comes Jesus, this empowered teacher who does these amazing things like kicking demons out of people and commanded fevers to take a hike and even daring to pronounce a man forgiven of his sins. Everyone is talking about Jesus. And this very same Jesus observes Levi at his tax booth and said to him, “Follow me.” I imagine an electric excitement shooting through Levi. Nobody wanted Levi to follow them. The good religious folk avoided him like the plague. He was collecting money for the enemy – the Romans or Herod, Rome’s puppet – and he was in constant contact with Gentiles. His booth was most likely on a major road and every traveler into the district with goods to sell had to pay taxes. And Levi left all of this behind to follow Jesus. Those who understand the depth of their need are more likely to make this life-altering decision.
So it isn’t surprising really that Levi throws a banquet in Jesus’ honor. Banquets were celebrations – joyful expressions of gratitude. And Luke lets us know that this banquet was huge. This tells us that Levi had himself some money, which is also not surprising – the kind of tax collecting Levi did was a lucrative affair. It is not surprising that the guests were other tax collectors and “others,” who are later referred to as “sinners.” Who else would eat with Levi. This was his crowd. If you ask a sinner to come to church, he may just invite other sinners and before you know it you might be overrun with sinners. For a moment picture Levi’s overwhelming joy – the new radical rabbi asked him, of all people, to follow. Now this is a reason to throw a party!
We don’t know where the Pharisees and their scribes came from. Did they overhear an excited asked to the banquet sinner bursting out their joy at the prospect of meeting Jesus? Don’t know. They were not in Levi’s house. Goodness no! They wouldn’t be caught dead in there. Picture them cornering Jesus’ disciples and grumbling. “Grumbling” is an onomatopoeic word: gonguzo. It implies a murmuring over something you are dissatisfied with. The Pharisees are very dissatisfied with Jesus and his disciples. In their separatist vision of God’s mission, you would never eat with tax collectors and sinners. Sinners refers to public sinners – people who lived beyond the edge of respectable society. Known sinners who shocked their communities with their unsocial behavior. If you share a meal with them, you will be contaminated right alongside them.
Jesus responds with his classic “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” In Jesus’ day, physicians didn’t treat healthy people and healthy people didn’t waste their money on physicians. You went to the doctor when you knew something was terribly wrong. And then he added, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus does not delineate who the righteous and the sinners are, he just makes his statement. He did not come to condemn the sinners, but to rescue them. He came to invite them to repent; to change their minds and their lives about how they had been living. He does not in this statement condone sin. He condemns the sin as something that needs to be repented of, while calling the sinner.
The Pharisees believed they were facing an epidemic; they were surrounded by people infected with sin. Their goal was to separate themselves from the masses; to distinguish themselves as the healthy and the pious. They believed the mission of God was to save the righteous and to condemn the sinner. And because they didn’t believe in a pandemic, they didn’t think they needed a physician. And sadly, they missed the cure who walked among them. Don’t miss the cure! Grace and peace. Walter